After Paolo Sorrentino won the 2014 foreign-language Oscar with “The Great Beauty,” he segued into “Youth,” his English language equally lush pic, which just scored top prizes at the European Film Awards, including a best actor nod for Michael Caine. Sorrentino recently spoke in Rome with Variety about making the film in which Caine plays a retired orchestra conductor in reflective mode at a posh Alpine spa. “Youth” just had its Middle East premiere at the Dubai film festival, one of many fests it launched from after world premiering in May in Cannes.
Compared with “The Great Beauty” this seems like a much more tender film.
Yes, it’s true. I didn’t want to make a complicated movie like “The Great Beauty,” which touches a lot of themes, symbols, satires. Instead, this wanted to be a warm movie on a theme that I had not explored before, which is: ‘how do we envision ourselves in the future?’ I was passionate about the idea of how two 80-year-olds [played by Caine and Harvey Keitel] envisioned themselves in the future. But it’s meant to be a warm, tender movie; sentimental in the good sense of the word.
You’ve worked with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi ever since your second film, “The Consequences of Love.” How much has he contributed to your aesthetic? And what type of work did he do on “Youth”?
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We work very well together. We’ve made six movies and now we are making ‘The Young Pope’ TV series, which is like five movies in one. We experience things the same way. With time I’ve drawn from him and he’s drawn from me. We see things the same way, with very minimal differences. We don’t even talk that much about how to light a shot. It’s as though we both know that the other one knows. What Luca initially brought to me was an aesthetic of darkness that I did not know – and I got to know it in “The Consequences of Love.” But in time, paradoxically, he became sunnier and I became darker. In “Youth” the setting, the environment, was very important. To have a unity of setting. So we let the setting and the Spring season carry us.
Can you tell me about working with your production designer on “Youth,” Ludovica Ferrario?
I’ve known Ludovica for a long time. She’s an architect, which is very useful for me. She has a sense of proportions, of geometry. There is lots of geometry in cinema, nobody ever talks about this. And architects know geometry. On top of that, to use an old fashioned term, she’s a classy lady with an innate good taste. That helps me a lot and it keeps me in check when I ‘degenerate’ – either because I’m tired or for other reasons – and try to force something that’s not right.
You’ve also been working with the same editor, Cristiano Travaglioli, since “Il Divo.” I know editing is a really key part of the process for you.
Yes, the first edit run for me is crucial. I don’t watch dailies because they make me agitated. I never do re-shoots, I’ve never shot a scene over again. Several years ago I talked about directing with the Cohen brothers who told me something that illuminated me. They told me: ‘making a movie is like a sports match: you have x number of days; x amount of time and the performance has to take place in those days and with those time constraints. You can’t cheat; you can’t get extra time.’ It’s a very smart rule. So when I get to the editing stage, it’s a great moment because I see all this material, some of which I don’t even remember because I shot it months earlier.
What I’ve heard about you as a director is you know what you want, you are really fast in making decisions and you are very prolific. And the amazing thing is you never went to film school!
Yes. But as far as knowing what I want, when I started out I faked it. Precisely because I hadn’t gone to film school I wasn’t that believable, even to myself. So I though if I show I’m insecure everybody will take advantage of me to get their paws on my things and say: ‘let yourself be guided since you don’t have experience.’ So right from the start I pretended I knew what I was doing. Then, slowly, by working this assuredness became real. But I have my doubts, I just don’t show them.
As far as confidence goes, you’ve been working with some superstars lately – Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda in “Youth,” Diane Keaton in “Young Pope,” and you don’t seem very intimidated, frankly.
Well at first, with the first superstar I worked with, Sean Penn, I was very intimidated. But he helped me a lot. In our conversations before we started he conveyed very clearly to me the concept that he trusted me, because of the script and my previous movie, and our conversations. And no matter what I might have heard about him, if he trusted someone there weren’t going to be any problems. And that calmed me. I’m not intimidated by great actors because they are the ones it’s easiest to work with.
The dynamics between characters in “Youth” are quite clear, as are the characters themselves. But there is one character, legendary footballer Diego Armando Maradona, that not all American reviewers seem to have identified. In your Oscar speech you thanked Maradona, so he must play a pretty important part in your world.
Aside from all the things I’ve said before about Maradona, he involuntarily saved my life. I lost my parents when I was 16 in an accident with the heating system in a house in the mountains where I always used to go to with them. That weekend, I didn’t go because I wanted to go watch Maradona and S.S.C Napoli play a match in Empoli, and that saved me. That’s the main reason. It’s true, Americans don’t know that much about soccer. My American casting agent didn’t know who Maradona was.